When Robin Hall's parents first handed him an application for the Black Male Leadership Development Institute last year, his reaction was thanks, but no thanks.
He had only recently moved to Penn Hills and was adjusting to his new high school and a new blended family of dad, stepmom, stepsister and his stepsister's daughter. The teenager figured he didn't need one more thing on his plate.
On Saturday, Robin, a junior at Penn Hills High School, was named the top graduate of the leadership program by vote of his peers. The honor was announced at a graduation ceremony at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.
Asked afterward what he would tell parents and young men about the program, Robin said, "To the parents, I'd say, make them do it. To the kids, I'd say, it might sound bad at first, but it's not that bad, it's pretty great."
The leadership institute, co-sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and Robert Morris University, is now in its sixth year, and has recruited about 250 black boys between the ninth and 12th grades for training in ethics, community service and striving for higher education.
The program includes a full residential week at Robert Morris in the summer, and then many Saturday sessions and community service activities through the rest of the year.
Asked what part of the program made the biggest impact on him, Robin said it was probably the outside speakers.
"I don't want to say they were old, but they were, you know, old, and the experiences they told us they went through because they lived through the '60s and '70s when the civil rights movement was going on made me realize how lucky we are that we don't have to deal with any of that, and how strong they were to get through that and how good we have it now."
The leadership program was started to confront the crisis facing black American males.
Statistics from the Morehouse Male Initiative show that only 41 percent of African-American men in America graduate from high school, and only 22 percent of black males who begin at a four-year college graduate within six years.
On top of that, the initiative says, 1.46 million African-American men in the U.S. have lost their right to vote because of felony convictions.
Rex Crawley, assistant dean of Robert Morris' School of Communications, said pushing the young men in the program to aim for higher education is a major part of the leadership initiative. "For some young men, being smart is not cool. So these young men actually have to stand up and say 'You know, let's make smart cool again.'"
Robin's stepmother, Kelly Starver-Hall, a nurse manager at the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System, said she pushed to get Robin in the program because she knew it would provide him with a lot of good role models.
"Most young men look at the basketball players or the football players as role models, and I wonder why. To me, your role model could be as simple as the guy who owns the corner store and who came as an immigrant with $5 in his pocket and he's now thriving. Success is not just money, and it's not just education.
"We want Robin to be happy and find his niche in life. Maybe his niche is he wants to be a marine biologist -- well guess what, I'm not and his father's not, so we have to find a marine biologist he can look up to."
Robin's father, Robin Hall Sr., said he was already proud of his son even before the announcement that he had been named the top graduate, and now, "my heart is still pounding 50 miles an hour. I almost cried. In one year, it's been a big transformation."
The graduates were resplendent in white shirts and bow ties. For many, it was the first time they had worn them, and Mr. Crawley often got the honor of tying them properly.
In a way, it fit in with one of the most important teaching modules in the program -- a session led by Chris Moore of WQED on media portrayals of young black men.
"We spend a lot of time helping them understand how they are perceived by others and of how to manage those perceptions," Mr. Crawley said. "They learn if you want to be seen as a professional, the clothes you wear impact that, the handshake you have impacts that, the music you listen to publicly impacts that. They're young boys and they're not always thinking about how they're perceived."
The ceremony took Robin Hall back to his first day at the Robert Morris program.
"That first day, I wanted to go home. But as it progressed, I got to know people and the speakers came in, and I actually learned a lot and it ended up being one of the best experiences in my life. So I'm excited to do it next year."
Mark Roth: email@example.com or 412-263-1130.